Peter Box: Devolution will set regions free to drive growth

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Devolution works and we have the figures in the Leeds City Region that prove it.

Locally-led programmes to support businesses, get young people into education and training, develop new housing and reduce reliance on government grants have delivered up to three times faster and had double the impact of national programmes.

That’s one of the messages my West Yorkshire Combined Authority colleagues and I will be taking to George Osborne, Ed Balls and Nick Clegg when we meet them ahead of the forthcoming Autumn Statement.

But although the Leeds City Region economy is the largest outside London, Gross Value Added (GVA) for our workers falls below the UK average.

Among the causes of this productivity challenge is the centralisation of government which sees 95 per cent of my council’s annual budget dictated by and controlled by Whitehall. Combined with the piecemeal way that funding is allocated, this hinders joined-up local planning and co-ordination of strategic investment.

In the face of these challenges, we have formulated our devolution proposals which we will be presenting.

The Combined Authority and the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership (LEP) have already secured the country’s largest Growth Deal and the £1bn West Yorkshire plus Transport Fund. Now we have to build on that start and work towards a City Region that has jobs for all, an innovation-led environment, housing growth, 21st Century and is supported by a transformed transport system.

To achieve jobs for all, we need to see skills and employment funding devolved to the City Region. This would help our businesses to create 20,000 new high-quality jobs, supported by the higher level skills and apprenticeships.

Housing growth for a 21st century economy means a devolved single budget to double house building to over 10,000 new homes per year by 2021, reduce the City Region’s annual Housing Benefit bill and encourage “Help to Buy” arrangements.

A transformation of our transport system means an integrated and efficient road and rail network that “shrinks” the distances between the City Region’s towns, cities and Leeds Bradford International Airport, and also ensures that we are ready for high-speed rail.

Achieving these aims and reaching our full potential requires fiscal devolution and empowerment in the form of a single, comprehensive area budget to maximise value for money and make coherent economic planning possible. This means incentivised funding based on GVA growth to encourage local investment. It means retained business rates, an unfreezing of council tax restrictions and also the pooling of national and local public sector agency resources.

We could then work with our entrepreneurial private sector partners to help transform our City Region from being a recipient from the public purse to a net contributor.

Another task under devolution would be identifying the exact parameters of the area budget and drafting a West Yorkshire and York Bill.

This would give us the powers, already enjoyed by London and major European cities regions, to put in place an integrated transport system, determine housing strategies and establish a skills and labour market agreement.

This last measure would enable the Combined Authority and the LEP to work with schools, colleges, universities and other learning bodies to support more people into work, and provide training in the skills that our businesses really need.

We also want to offer unemployed young people guaranteed apprenticeships, work placements or paid internships and pave the way to support SMEs to employ apprentices.

The North’s city regions have long seen devolution as a way of achieving their full economic potential and the recent Scottish referendum has put us in the spotlight. City regions across the North are all making demands in a new and changed environment.

The message of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority leaders is “give us the power to match our ambition”. We know the public don’t want even more politicians, which is why we are saying we can build on the strong Combined Authority Model already in existence.

Neither George Osborne, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls nor Nick Clegg can afford to ignore the Leeds City Region which, with a £52bn economy and populations of three million, is the largest outside London. Nor those of Greater Manchester with 2½ million people and a £46bn economy or of Liverpool and Tyne & Wear with economies of over £20bn each.

As I have said before, the devolution genie is now out of the bottle and we’ve shown that it gets results.

Peter Box is chairman of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority. He is also the Labour leader of Wakefield Council.